Since 1982 the English Department at San Jose State University has sponsored the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose opening sentences to the worst of all possible novels.
The contest (hereafter referred to as the BLFC) was the misbegotten brainchild of Professor Scott Rice, whose graduate school excavations unearthed what he took to be the source of the line “It was a dark and stormy night.” Sentenced to write a seminar paper on a minor Victorian novelist, he chose the man with the funny hyphenated name, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. Best known for The Last Days of Pompeii, his novel Paul Clifford began with the famous opener that has been plagiarized repeatedly by the cartoon beagle, Snoopy.
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
Later, Rice was to discover that the line had been around for donkey’s years before Lytton decided to have fun with it but the damage had been done. The BLFC had calumniated Lytton’s memory and rendered his name synonymous with bad writing, an author more widely read in his time than Charles Dickens. Nevertheless, Lytton did coin phrases that have become common parlance in our language: “the pen is mightier than the sword,” “the great unwashed,” and “the almighty dollar” (the latter from The Coming Race, now available from BroadviewPress).
The BLFC has continued to draw acclaim and opprobrium. Thousands continue to enter yearly, the judging has been covered by all the major American television networks, and journalists and pundits from Charles Osgood to George F. Will have commented on the BLFC phenomenon. And for decades the winners continued to be announced by both national and international media, including such worthies as the BBC, Australian Radio, RadioSouth Africa, and Radio Blue Danube from Vienna. To sustain the momentum, the Penguin collections of entries eventually reached five, each an indispensable addition to the bookshelves of discerning readers and collectors (lamentably, they are now all out of print, a commentary on the misplaced and mercenary values of modern publishers).
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